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Saturday 03|10|01
Some more thoughts on Self Organizing

I have been doing a lot of thinking about the concept of self organizing sites. So far what I have read - spurred by the launch of and its outgrowth from Slashdot - has been primarily about sites full of Editorial. Sites for and by writers like: The Vines and Theme Stream and sites that are message board like allowing members to post and rate other members and their comments - Plastic, Slash. The self-organizing concept has had some application in Amazon - books bought by others, and Google. These applications are still in their infancy and are generally transparent to the end user.

My thoughts have been around how these concepts, that have been applied on these more specialty sites, can be manipulated and applied into more robust and commercial Community spaces. I have a penchant for Community and think that what we have out there on the web is still in its infancy. What types of experiences will lead these spaces into more robust and meaningful places. Are message boards enough? The concepts behind Plastic, if applied to traditional topic based message boards or listservs could be extremely interesting. What happens if this type of thinking is applied to live chat where conversations happen in time. Could there be visual variance to a personal conversation based on their ratings or judgements by other members of the conversation. This opens itself up to endless opportunities for the designer.

I was rereading an essay by Jessica Helfand last night . The essay - I design therefore I am - was written somewhere around 1996 - 1997 and published in the collection I have in 1997. While dated, she talks about chat virtual spaces and the concepts of avatars - the Palace and Microsoft's Comic Chat - are two spaces she refers to. I have to wonder about these places. They were hailed as the next great thing and then disappeared quietly from our radar. What went wrong? Was it bandwidth? Was it the concept? Was it that early adopters of this type of experience - chatting - felt the current tools were fine or was it that gamers - those experienced in virtual spaces - weren't chatters? Needless to say, some new models need to be developed. What should we learn from the failures of the past and how do we know exactly what was the failure - too soon in the evolution? Wrong model?

All the big portals - AOL, MSN, Yahoo, Excite, Lycos and until this past February - AltaVista -- have large Community memberships. AOL is probably the most known for this arena. How would an experience or concept like self organizing - do in this more commercial space. Obviously the best work, most popular, would rise to the top. What about niche topics with few interested? When I was at AltaVista and building the community space, we developed ratings systems that required multiple member (10) ratings before a rating would show up - that way you couldn't boost your own site up in the rankings - and we limited the time a person could rate their own and other sites. This helped move quality content up in the browsable directory and didn't require any kind of manual editor. Unfortunately, we didn't get to continue development or study the patterns or spread the concept across the message boards or chat spaces.
With the more sophisticated software being developed now, I wonder what other types of applications can be made or evolved - particularly when bringing people together and providing rich interaction. I am excited to see how this will play out.

Posted by erin at 06:21 PM | in Theory


Interesting thoughts, Erin. I've been thinking a bit about self organizing sites and online communities lately and, like you, have wondered why success stories are not more common. After all, spontaneous, interactive, organized user generated content is what I think many people find fascinating about the Internet . . .
newsgroups, Ebay user feedback, Amazon reader reviews owe their killer app status to user-generated-content and interactivity.

But why aren't there more success stories? . . . Perhaps because the success stories are behind the scenes, i.e. newsgroups and little websites that really do serve people well, but which aren't talked about. You won't bump into a press release about them in the WSJ or see them covered on the 6:00 news.

But why are the rules of the organizing systems still so basic and clunky? Given the number of sites out there and potential communities, why are there not more robust places like slashdot?

I think it's easy to underestimate the improbability of a successful implementation. A successful implementation needs a perfect mix of many things and there are scarcities involved that make this confluence very unlikely:

There needs to be a good community sentiment ("community target", if you are thinking from a biz dev point of view). Undoubtedly there are many, but not all identifiable groups necessarily work online - webographics (experience, browsing habits, etc.), self identification, lack of better dirt world community options, etc.

There needs to be a good rules environment. Slash,PHPnuke, etc all are relatively young and have particular subsets of a superset of possible community rules and organization mechanisms. The programmers behind these projects each are making up little worlds, with their own laws and these laws are complex.

Importantly, the details of these organization mechanisms are crucial. A slight change on how the rules work, can alter the whole thing in disastrous ways (I sound like the dude in Back to the Future, "You'll alter the space-time continuum, Marty" :-) ) This being the case, there are huge numbers of variations. It is not that there is only one right answer, but still it is very hard to get it just right, e.g. to balance demands for active participation, with the rewards, to balance the presentation of copious content with easy navigation for a people with a wide variety of informational goals.

There needs to be a good web team, programmer who can manage the code base, figure out servers, navigation design/layout person, etc., etc.

There needs to be a person who knows the community well.

There needs to be a great link between the person who knows the community extremely well and the person who knows the code, its powers and limits, well.

There needs to be time.
There needs to be money.
The money has to understand the vision.
The more this is all within one person, the easier- but also much more rare.

It will be very hard to develop truly valuable self-organizing entities, but as the rules options become clearer and the programs out there increase in number and stability I think it will become more likely that a visionary community builder will be able to mix the right potion . . .

I would be interested to know your thoughts on any of the ideas, and - especially - to know if you have any new thoughts on self-organizing sites.


Posted by Eric Winter at August 16, 2002 09:42 PM

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